Our Pale Blue Dot

This post was first published at Scientopia’s Guest Blogge.

Above is the image known as the Pale Blue Dot. It was taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 as the spacecraft was leaving the Solar System on its indefinite journey into interstellar space. At over 40 astronomical units (AU), or 6 billion (that’s 6 x 109) kilometres from Earth, the image that was beamed back to us is incredible in its portrayal of our tiny world against the vastness of the cosmos. You are on the tiny blueish pixel, centre right, seemingly illuminated by a beam of light. Although taken two decades ago, I feel that this image is still as significant and poignant as when it was first released.

The image was the inspiration for Pale Blue Dot, a book written in 1994 by renowned cosmologist and science populariser Carl Sagan. Rarely has a work of non-fiction elicited such a powerful emotional response as Pale Blue Dot. Sagan’s reputation as a distinguished author as well as respected scientist was justly deserved; his prose is beautiful, almost poetic in its fluency and rich in vivid imagery and clarity. In particular the opening chapters, entitled ‘Wanderers’ and ‘You Are Here’, are some of the finest examples of science writing I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Sagan’s interpretation of the significance of the above image is so powerful that little I can say here to paraphrase will do his delivery justice.To illustrate my point I will reproduce one of my favourite passages from the book:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

The reason that these words are so striking is that they epitomise the ability of science to amaze and humble, but also to provide sensible perspective when tackling difficult questions and to reconcile our differences in opinion and ideology. It is often said that a life dedicated to science makes you cold, pessimistic and unattached; absorbed in grey objectivity and burdened by the realisation of the insignificance and futility of our fleeting existence. This book, and in particular this paragraph, prove otherwise. These words are truisms, not empty conjecture, but rather statements of fact catalysed by the perspective garnered from the above image. Earth is a small watery planet in an otherwise uninteresting star system, itself tucked away in a remote corner of a common barrel-spiral galaxy. It is the only home we have ever known and we therefore have a responsibility to care for it and each other, because on the scale of the universe our differences are minuscule and unidentifiable, our existence brief and uneventful and our impact on the vastness of space, practically nil. No religion was required to reach this conclusion, no scripture needed, no proverbs recited or prayers offered. These words were penned by the careful hand of science, yet they dispel our fundamentally flawed sense of self-importance and reveal our basic evolutionary solidarity with each other as well as with all other terrestrial organisms, past and present, that we have had the privilege to share our planet with.

Our desperate isolation, so clearly revealed, is almost painful to comprehend. Our species’ egotistical machinations pale in comparison to the disproportionate emptiness of space. Our fragile, fleshy frames are much too delicate to withstand the abuses of even interplanetary travel; our cells and DNA destroyed by radiation, our bodies and minds distorted by the passage of time and our lungs suffocated by vacuum and cold. The logical and philosophical constructions that have served us so well in the past break down – the anthropic principal, the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation are all examples of how little we know about what is out there, and how incapable we are of providing a conclusive answer in the near future. We lack the technology to leave, barely demonstrate the responsibility and insight to justify the exploration of other planets and are probably centuries away from considering their colonisation. Firmly rooted to our contemporary astronomical location, for now at least, we are alone in the dark.I would urge every person on our planet to read this book. It has humbled me, but also made me proud to be a member of a species that has ventured out into the cosmos, landed on other planets and sent messages to the stars. Voyager 1 remains a testament to human engineering, currently the most distant man-made object from the Earth (at 113 AU) and still obediently cruising through interstellar space in perfect working order 33 years after launch. We clearly possess great potential but there is a chance that we will squander these opportunities in their infancy if we remain focused on differences in race, religion and culture. These are inconsequential and vitriolic human constructions which will stunt our growth as a species and keep us perpetually rooted in the anachronistic superstitions and philosophies of the past. My advice would be to try to keep the above paragraph fresh in your mind, its message floating gently through your subconscious, quietly reminding you to maintain a rational perspective regarding the struggle for our continued existence whilst seeking to dispel our unfortunately innate tendency towards ignorance and presumption.

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